I recently listened to a few episodes of a new podcast with Richard Rohr, Brian McLaren, and Jacqui Lewis called Learning How To See. In the first episode, Brian describes watching the rise of Donald Trump in 2016. As Trump defeated candidate after candidate in the Republican Party, Brian began to suspect that he would win the nomination. And so he contacted a psychologist friend asking for any information, articles, or resources that could help him to understand what was happening.
I was deeply moved by this response from Brian to a significantly troubling phenomenon. Instead of reducing everything down to the simplest terms and falling into ‘us’ and ‘them’ thinking, he made a conscious decision to withhold judgment and learn. If only more of us could follow Brian McLaren’s example.
THE PROBLEM WITH ENEMIES
As our world grows increasingly polarised we often hear opposing groups define one another in the worst possible terms: demonic, satanic, evil, the source of all society’s problems. In this dualistic view ‘they’ are ‘all bad,’ ’we’ are ‘all good’ and the whole population is categorised as either ‘friend’ or ‘enemy.’
The moment we define someone as an enemy, we shut ourselves off from their humanity and any contribution they may possibly make to our world. We deny that our enemies have any wisdom from which we could learn. We refuse to agree with them, even when they are right, for fear of giving them power over us. We define our enemies one-dimensionally, only seeing them through our adversarial relationship with them and we refuse to recognise that, like us, they have families, loves, hurts, dreams, and fears. An enemy cannot possibly be striving, as we do, for a good life for themselves and their children. All we can see is that they are trying to destroy what we hold dear. They can’t possibly be partners in the human condition.
It is immensely satisfying to view the other in this simplistic way. We don’t have to deal with the complexity of their humanity. We don’t have to sift through the mix of good and bad in their motives, attitudes, or actions. And we do not have to face the reality that we too are a complicated cocktail of goodness and destructiveness. But we will never find the comfort, peace, and security we seek by dividing the world into black and white hats like this.
ARE WE SERIOUS?
Almost every religious path in our world calls their devotees to a life of love. We are to love ourselves, our friends and family, and our neighbours. But it doesn’t end there—Jesus was not the only spiritual teacher to preach about loving our enemies. Unfortunately, few people seem to believe that he was serious.
A few months ago I read about a professor of theology who asked his seminary students if they believed that Jesus intended them to live by the Sermon on the Mount. A significant majority claimed that Jesus’ words were poetry or metaphor, not a guide for our actions. I suspect most people think of the command to love our enemies the same way.
THE FIRST STEPS
But what if Jesus was serious? What does it mean, practically, for us to try and love our enemies? Any attempt to make loving enemies seem easy would be unhelpful in the extreme. Love is complex and messy at the best of times, so when we add in opposition and conflict it can only get messier. Nevertheless, I’m going to offer some thoughts in the hope that they may be a catalyst to deeper thought and conversation.
Reject Dualism and Caricatures
If stereotyping, caricaturing, and black-and-white thinking feeds polarisation then we obviously need to do the opposite if we are to overcome our divisions. Perhaps I am naïve, but I truly believe that, apart from those who are truly psychotic, most people want a peaceful life of love and contentment. Often our conflict arises from failing to understand the worldview, aspirations, and motives of those we consider our enemies. This means that the first step to loving your enemy is to see them as more than a one-dimensional, nameless thing. Sometimes just taking the time to know someone can change an enemy into a friend.
Find the Common Ground
Once we have learned to know our enemy, at least a little, we can take the next step into finding common ground. At the very least we all share the human condition. Shylock described the truth of our shared humanity so passionately in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice:
I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die?
For the moment we will ignore the fact that he uses this argument to justify his desire for revenge. The truth stands. We have our humanity in common. Once we admit this, we can move on to find more specific and powerful points of contact with one another. And once we have found areas of connection, it becomes harder to write ‘them’ off as wrong and to deliberately inflict harm on the other.
Choose Love Over Fear
The essential choice that lies at the heart of all spiritual paths is this: will we centre our lives around fear or love? If we choose fear, our default stance will be self-protective and we will seek our own best above all, even if it comes at the cost of another person’s pain. If we choose love, our default stance will be self-giving and we will seek what is best for ourselves and all others as far as possible. This doesn’t mean we never confront toxic attitudes and behaviour when we encounter them. But when we do confront, we will be clear about our motives and do our best to ensure that our goal is healing and safety for the vulnerable first and then ultimately for as many people as possible.
STARTING THE CONVERSATION
There is so much more that needs to be said about the challenge of loving our enemies. But I hope this will be a starting point for self-reflection, deep questions, and challenging conversations.
As you think about what to do with these thoughts, I’d like to suggest that you find safe spaces where you can be healed and affirmed as you open yourself to engage with those who oppose you. If you need such a space then I recommend you consider joining the EvoFaith Tribe. It’s a free community where everyone is welcomed and accepted as they are. The only rule is to be kind to one another.
And if you’re keen to continue the conversation, then please leave a comment below, follow EvoFaith on social media, and share this post as widely as possible. The more we find those who are willing to at least try to love their enemies, the more we can have a positive healing effect on our corner of the world.
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